Maintaining control is as much about the physical as it is the mental for Kyle Drabek this spring.
The young Toronto Blue Jays right-hander’s trouble containing his emotions on the mound last year during a difficult season were well documented, and it’s something the 24-year-old continues to work on.
But perhaps an even more important point of emphasis for Drabek at the moment is tightening up a delivery that became increasingly wild as his problems on the mound mounted.
To that end, he’s spent the past two weeks focused on keeping his body within a simulated box – created by two yellow ropes on the ground framing the rubber – while throwing his bullpen sessions, a process designed to keep his head on a line to home plate and his body from falling toward first base.
While keeping his cool when things go wrong will remain an important component of improving his game, a better delivery that will make him a more effective pitcher should help him avoid getting into frustrating situations as often as he did in 2011.
“We found out during the season I was stepping across my body quite a bit and that didn’t allow me to reach my glove-side fastball, outside to a righty, very well,” Drabek said Wednesday. “That was one of the things over the off-season we talked about and I worked on it a little at home by myself.
“When I got here I was working with Dane (Johnson, roving pitching coach) and (pitching coach Bruce Walton), it’s allowing me to see the plate more and control my pitches better.”
Walton and Johnson, along with input from manager John Farrell, came up with the idea of the box over the winter and presented it to Drabek in January.
They had tried to implement what Walton described as “simple fixes” to Drabek’s delivery last year, focusing on keeping his body aligned with home and his feelings in check, but the adjustments were simply too difficult to make in-season and their charge was reluctant to implement them anyway.
Compounding matters, Drabek was tipping his curveball as well.
“I noticed in film that sometimes I would bend my back more to try and get that 12-to-6 and I think (hitters) started noticing that,” he explained. “Plus every time I threw it, it was in the dirt, and they noticed that too.”
Getting hit harder than he’d ever been in his life as a result and finding it difficult to cope, Drabek decided to stick with what he knew, and it didn’t end well. His numbers settled at a 4-5 record with a 6.06 ERA and a hideous WHIP of 1.805 in 18 games, 14 of them starts with the Blue Jays, and a 5-4 mark with a 7.44 ERA and 2.027 WHIP at hitter-friendly triple-A Las Vegas.
In reflecting on what went wrong once the season ended, Drabek’s mind opened to other possibilities and he’s now embraced the new approach as he fights to pull himself back into a spot in the Blue Jays rotation.
“Changing my mechanics, that’s one thing that the team and coaches wanted to do, and last year I didn’t really like it and this year I’m starting to figure it out,” he said. “They are there to help, and I guess last year I was just so frustrated that I didn’t want it at times.
“Now, I wish I would have listened and tried harder than I did.”
That type of navel-gazing suggests a more mature Drabek this spring, one more willing to trust advice from his coaches rather than one simply receding into what he knows, believing he needs to stick with what carried him to the majors.
“That’s what I was thinking last year, they’re trying to change something I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily changing it, it’s just making a few tweaks here and there to improve myself.”
Those tweaks may help him maintain his composure better as well, since there was a direct correlation between his in-game angst and the devolution of his delivery.
As Walton put it, “he got frustrated by his performance and kept trying harder and kept trying to throw harder, and his mechanics got worse as he used every percent of his body in his delivery.”
That created a cycle of failure Drabek couldn’t escape and eventually he became consumed by it, with the troubles exacerbated by the spotlight on him as things fell apart.
Ace Ricky Romero experienced something similar during his ascent to the majors, and believes going through it in the minors is easier.
“You tend to carry it when you start failing, you feel like nothing goes your way and you start doubting yourself, you start doubting your ability and the next thing you know you’re saying when is it going stop instead of being positive and saying I’m going to keep working,” said Romero. “Once those negative thoughts creep in you start going downhill and I think that’s what happened with Kyle last year.
“He started failing and he’d never been through those failures, and it wore on him a little bit. Everywhere he’s gone he’s been the guy, so it was a learning experience. This year he’s coming in with a different mentality.”
The trick is getting the new delivery to take.
Trying things out during spring bullpen sessions is one thing, executing them in a game is a whole other deal. There may be a learning curve there.
“Right now he’s building a foundation and the key is to take it into games and stick with it through adversity – that’s the big one for everybody,” said Walton. “He’s got an explosive arm and when he keeps his delivery simple and stays down the line, his stuff is electric.
“If he stays with the program, eventually we’ll see him start making pitches.”
So far, Drabek has bought in and is ready to do just that.
“It started off difficult, it felt awkward because it changes something you’ve done your whole life,” he said. “But as I keep doing it, I’m glad we started because my pitches I think have gotten better, and definitely the location of them has improved.
“Really, everything has transformed. It also has allowed me to repeat my delivery on each pitch 80 per cent or more, that’s what I’m looking for, to be able to repeat my delivery, that I’m not showing something different on certain pitches.”
If he’s able to maintain his progress into games, Drabek may make the rotation race very interesting.